The Russian army spent decades and billions of dollars building what should be the world’s most fearsome artillery fire-control system. Combining drones, radars and thousands of modern howitzers and rocket-launchers, the fire-control system in theory can spot a target, relay coordinates and send shells down-range in just 10 seconds.
In practice, in the chaos of Russia’s wider war on Ukraine, the system barely works at all—and the artillerymen themselves mostly are to blame, according to Maksim Fomin, a militia fighter for the separatists Donetsk People’s Republic and a pro-Russian blogger. “Most of the gunners, before Feb. 24, had no idea how to fight in modern conditions,” Fomin wrote under his pen name “Vladlen Tatarsky” on Saturday.
Fomin was referring to the gunners from the Russian army’s Northern Military District, but the same criticism could apply to the army’s other districts, too—to the whole force, in fact. A sophisticated artillery fire-control system is useless if the troops don’t know how to operate it. Sure, they might fire off a lot of shells. Just don’t count on them hitting the right things—and certainly not quickly.
While the Russian army embeds tube and rocket artillery in front-line units up and down the force—from battalion to brigade to division to army—it’s the battalion-level guns that are closest to the front, and arguably the most dangerous to enemy troops.
Artillery in the BTG has the effect of “providing maximum responsiveness when short windows of opportunity present themselves,” Col. Liam Collins and Capt. Harrison Morgan wrote in an article for the Association of the U.S. Army. Each BTG normally has 18 tracked howitzers. “Gods of war,” Fomin called them.
This is unusual. The U.S. Army, for instance, generally keeps its guns at the brigade level. The advantage, for the Americans, is concentration and central control. A brigade can move the artillery around to support the battalions and companies that need it the most.
The advantage, for the Russians, is speed. A Russian battalion commander doesn’t have to ask brigade for fire support. He’s got his own. And it’s right there, just behind the lines of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. What’s more, the BTG should have access to prompt targeting data from drones and a single PRP-4A radar vehicle that travels along with the battalion, scanning for enemy forces.
To complement the radar vehicle, the brigade has SNAR-10 and Zoopark-1 radar vehicles—and also can send out its own Orlan-10 or Orlan-30 drones. The brigade feeds target coordinates to the battalion, which passes them—along with any targets it acquires on its own—through the battery commanders to the junior officers accompanying the guns.
The key is that the battalion benefits from the brigade but does not need it. And the battalion certainly doesn’t need any echelon above brigade for fires. The battalion is just a few miles from the enemy. The brigade is much farther away. Division- and army-level guns and rockets would be farther away, still.
That close integration of tanks, infantry and artillery should allow the guns to shoot fast at enemy troops that might break cover for less than a minute at a time. That’s all the time well-trained Russian gunners would need, in theory. “Today, the cycle [from reconnaissance to engagement] takes literally 10 seconds,” said Maj. Gen. Vadim Marusin, deputy chief of staff of Russia’s ground forces.
The fire-control system worked reasonably well on a small scale during the first phase of Russia’s war on Ukraine, in the eastern region of Donbas in 2014 and 2015. Russian batteries frequently disrupted Ukrainian attempts to mass forces for attacks.
But between 2015 and 2022, the Russian army’s biggest campaign was in Syria, where the fighting was infrequent and the enemy was unsophisticated. Artillery skills atrophied, according to Fomin. “The experience of Syria does not suit Ukraine at all,” he wrote.
Moreover, the army grew complacent—and acquired too few Orlan drones to support the fire-control system on a large scale. “On Feb. 24, most of the artillery went into battle with compass and binoculars at hand,” Fomin wrote. “The spotter needed to climb a tree or somewhere else and control the fire—there were not enough [unmanned aerial vehicles] and, in most cases, there was no UAV.”
The radar vehicles were present but couldn’t compensate for the drone shortage. “For the most part, no one knows how to use them or, perhaps, they are not effective,” Fomin wrote of the radars. “I can say one thing for sure: I have never heard at the command post that they received target designation from radar devices.”
With too few drones and broken radar links, and relying on spotters with binoculars clinging to trees, Russian artillery batteries rolling into Ukraine at best were inefficient. At worst, they were blind.
A lack of drones also has prevented Russian batteries from making good use of their Krasnopol laser-guided shells. Orlan-30 drones fitted with laser designators are the best means of guiding in the Krasnopols, according to Fomin. Without adequate numbers of Orlans to designate targets, the high-tech shells sit unused.
The situation has improved since February, Fomin claimed. Many batteries now have Chinese-made DJI quadcopter drones. A quadcopter might not have a laser-designator, but it does have a video camera—and that’s a big improvement over a spotter in a tree. Units also have begun swapping messages using social-media app Telegram.
As Russia’s wider war on Ukraine grinds into its ninth month, the Russian artillery fire-control system still isn’t working as designed, Fomin claimed. But it’s not too late, he stressed. “The Russian gods of war will easily solve the issue with Ukraine if more Orlan-30s are given to the troops to adjust Krasnopol,” he claimed.
The problem, of course, is that Russia is struggling to acquire drones. Domestic manufacturers are being squeezed by foreign sanctions, forcing the Kremlin to cut deals with Iranian industry. But even the Iranian drones include many foreign parts. Iran’s drone-makers might also be vulnerable to sanctions.
Worse, the Russian army’s training standards are getting lower, not higher, as more and more experienced troops die or wind up in hospitals—and draftees with no more than two weeks of cursory instruction replace them. If Russian gunners with months or years of training aren’t capable of operating a sophisticated fire-control system, what chance do untrained conscripts have?